By Dan Kennedy • The press, politics, technology, culture and other passions

Editor hangs up after accusing reporter of “harangue”

I want to share this exchange between Christian Science Monitor correspondent Jessica Bruder and Al White, editor of the North Andover-based Eagle-Tribune.

Bruder wrote a story about what happens to civic life in a community when newspapers die or shrink. And one of the topics she touches on is the Banyan Project, which is scheduled to roll out a cooperatively owned news site in Haverhill next year to be called Haverhill Matters.

The Eagle-Tribune covers Haverhill, as does an affiliated weekly, the Haverhill Gazette. So let’s check in, shall we? Bruder writes:

Dissenting from the notion that Haverhill is undercovered is Al White, editor of the Eagle-Tribune. The company, whose downtown Haverhill office closed in March, still publishes a regional paper covering more than a dozen towns including Haverhill, along with the weekly Haverhill Gazette.

“Name one community where people won’t say that,” Mr. White says, addressing local claims of inadequate coverage. “This is a silly conversation.” Asked in a phone interview about the home page of the Haverhill Gazette’s website, where the most recent story in the schools section was more than 100 days old, he replied, “Do you want to have a conversation, or do you just want to harangue me?” Then he hung up the phone.

Wow. And yes, as of this moment the most recent story in the Haverhill Gazette online schools section is exactly 123 days old.

Yet the daily Eagle-Tribune features fairly robust coverage of Haverhill as well as a separate Haverhill print edition. These are tough times. Just last week the Eagle-Tribune and its sister papers — owned by an out-of-state chain — eliminated 21 jobs.

In other words, Al White and his staff appear to be doing the best they can under difficult conditions. I’d like to think if he had simply said that, then the Christian Science Monitor — not exactly known for snarky negativity — would have given him a respectful hearing.

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  1. Mike Benedict

    Don’t know Al White, but I do know that the CNHI papers in the North Shore are known for the lack of community engagement by their editors. White, Maccone, Olson and Lamont don’t spend time on the streets, talking with people and making observations. And that’s to the detriment of their papers, as they have created these self-feedback loops where they remain isolated and insulated from what the real problems are in the community. This shows up in their editing, their choice of what to cover (and what not to), and their response time.

    They borrow from each other liberally, but don’t alert the reader to the same. It’s not uncommon for a (unsigned) staff editorial backing one angle (say, federal funds to bail out the fishing industry) to show up in a completely unrelated place (e.g., the Eagle-Tribune). But then there will be a (unsigned) staff editorial a few days later decrying government intervention, leaving the reader to sort out what the paper’s position actually is.

    And their failure to pick up and localize bigger stories is borderline disastrous. The Lexington seclusion case, for example, is just one of dozens of similar suits that have been settled in North Shore towns over the past few years. Lowell, Peabody, Amesbury and other towns have been hit with — and paid out on — lawsuits for similarly egregious behavior. The NY Times and Boston Globe have done the early lifting on these stories; it would take precious little imagination and effort for the local papers to follow up. They haven’t, yet the lack of public awareness of this public abuse and negligence costs the towns they cover dearly.

  2. I have to agree with Dan’s assessment that “Al White and his staff appear to be doing the best they can under difficult conditions”. My sympathy to those who lost their job, and I selfishly hope the reporter(s) based in Haverhill were spared. Like many other papers, ET stories written by reporters living in the dateline community are more the exception than the rule. Only a minority of the 30 stories tagged Haverhill over the seven days ending today seem to be written by reporters living in Haverhill. They are doing the best they can, but it has to be tough covering communities you might otherwise visit only occasionally.

  3. Mike Benedict

    @Mike: But that’s the point: If they spent more time understanding the local population, the local population would see fit to support them. But these so-called local papers are largely disengaged from the communities they purport to cover. They spend way more ink on school bake sales than they do on key issues. How many times a year does this chain of papers inject itself into the local scene? It’s a business — it should act like one! There’s no vision, no creativity, no innovation.

    Through their lack of substantive coverage and interaction, they make themselves largely irrelevant, so no one buys the paper, advertisers leave, and they have to lay off more people. Wash. Rinse. Repeat.

  4. Dang, I’m sorry to read this. I worked for the Eagle-Tribune for around a year, before shoving off for Paris. It was a very good employer and I learned a lot about the mechanics of beat coverage. I started off as police reporter, then got promoted to North Andover’s beat. I moved to North Andover (for a combination of reasons, including the fact that the then-boyfriend, now husband, worked in Middleton). It was definitely helpful to live in the community I covered, and the editors I worked for then, including John Maccone and Al White, encouraged me to get out onto the streets and get to know my beat. They were also good editors and spent time helping me to polish up my rough edges (being about a year out of BU at the time!), so I would agree with you, Dan, that they’re doing the best they can under trying circumstances.

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